By Roland Murphy for Arizona Builder’s Exchange
After a tenacious lobbying attempt to persuade Mesa planners to revise a 30-year-old land use designation that never bore fruit, negotiations with city staff have resulted in a turnaround for developer Bela Flor Communities, LLC. The company is moving with its intent to build its proposed mixed-density residential community Bella Encanta at Hampton Avenue and Crismon Road.
A narrative and request submitted in July by Pew & Lake, PLC, on Bela Flor’s behalf sought a change in the designation from Employment to Neighborhood Suburban. As originally proposed, the project would have consisted of “139 single-family detached homes that will range from 1,718SF-2,347SF” with one single-story and five two-story configurations. “The project also contains 119 condominiums which range in size from 830SF- 2,148SF,” with 13 dedicated parking spaces for each building. At some point the plan was revised downward to a total of 249 units.
The developer requested a rezoning from NC-BIZ, NC-PAD and PEP-PAD-CUP to RSL-2.5-PAD and RM-3-PAD, Site Plan Review, and Preliminary Plat. A PAD overlay was requested to allow development standards deviations and use of a private streets.
The Argument For
Despite the city’s designation of the land as Employment at the time of the submittal and for more than 30 years prior, no commercial or employment uses were ever undertaken. In detailing the request, the narrative stated, “Based on the evidence…, and the past 30 plus years of experience dealing with this property, we strongly believe the intersection of Southern Avenue and Crismon Road is a good place for commercial, employment and retail uses, but not at the scale and intensity that is currently shown on the Mesa General Plan. Rather, for the SWC of Southern Ave. and Crismon Road, the historical land use development, and the lack of sufficient demographics in the area, do not sustain nor support the amount of employment land as currently shown. Therefore, the amount of commercial/employment land should be reduced and a high quality, residential, ownership project should be carefully considered as the highest and best use.”
Multiple sources and statements of support for the change were submitted with the request, including a statement in a previous zoning case from Susan Demmitt, attorney for the previous property owner, who stated, “Crismon Superstition Partners has owned its land for 30 years… During our 30 years of ownership, we never received serious or legitimate offers to develop our property with employment uses, despite its considerable frontage along the US 60 freeway. The market and demographics have never provided support for this type of development.”
Additional support was provided in the form of a report from CRE broker Terry Glass of Insight Land & Investments, who provided seven key points explaining why the land had never been — and likely would not be —developed for commercial use. Analysis also was provided by Troy Glover of Glover Valuation Group and by Brent Moser of Cushman & Wakefield, all of whom reached similar conclusions.
Moser wrote,” “Office parks in better locations than yours that were built in Chandler and Gilbert in the last few years [and they] are struggling right now, and office developers are aware of this. Your location is inferior to these locations. Why would they buy the Property when better locations in Chandler and Gilbert are struggling? . . . To be candid, Phoenix metro has a surplus of office space now, and will for the foreseeable future. While I would like to tell you that the Property could be sold to an office developer, that just isn’t going to happen, in my opinion, for a very long time, if ever.”
Statements from homeowners associations and businesses in the area also supported the request. A letter from Clint Gumm, president of the nearby Muirfield Village Community Association was representative of the collection. He wrote, “The Bella Encanta development offers opportunities for residential ownership, which is also our preference and is exactly what is needed for this vacant property that is currently and historically a homeless camp site, dumping ground and a general place for mischief.”
The Argument Against
Despite the site’s multi-decade fallow status and extensive support for the plan, an October staff report prepared for the Mesa Planning and Zoning Board showed either optimism in the area’s commercial potential or obstinance in yielding to change, depending on the observer’s perspective, and recommended denial of the Minor General Character Amendment, Rezone and Site Plan, and the Preliminary Plat.
In arguing its point, the staff report said, “The applicant’s project narrative provides ample data to show that this property will not likely development with Class A offices and similar uses that were envisioned in 2010. Given the increase in residential development on the north side of Hampton and the existing RM-3-PAD development to the west, staff can agree that this property may not have the potential for large Class A office development. However, with access to Crismon Road and grade level position at the US-60 Superstition Freeway makes this site highly visible and a good location for other nonresidential activities. There are other employment subtypes such as Business Parks. This site, in conjunction with the 15-acre PEP-PAD site at the east side, could incorporate a Business Park layout.”
The report also said, “The applicant also points to the fact that this property has been marketed for 30 years for non-residential development but has not received any significant interest. While this is true, this is not the only place where development has taken time.”
Staff also expressed concerns the Bella Encanta design would not create a “lasting neighborhood.”
The Coming Together
Between the October recommendation and the beginning of December, representatives of the developer and the city were able to reach some consensus, at least on the General Plan Amendment.
According to a Dec. 12 staff memo to the mayor and council from Development Services Director Christine Zielonka and Planning Director John Wesley, “The developer has indicated that they are willing to make significant changes to their site plan in order to adhere to the City Council direction… for staff to enforce the design and construction of high quality, sustainable residential development. Staff has also had further discussions with the applicant regarding the potential for future economic development in this area, and the relationship of residential development of these parcels to the planned non-residential uses that are being preserved along the Crismon Road frontage.”
The memo also notes, “The developer has expressed a willingness to work with staff to make major changes to their site plan that would ultimately result in providing a creative, high-quality, sustainable development that will be supportive of the non-residential uses along the arterial corridor and the planned employment areas across Crismon Road.”
The council approved the Minor General Plan Amendment unanimously at its Dec. 3 meeting. Because of the significant changes to the site plan, the rezoning case will go back before Planning & Zoning for additional consideration.